LAFC made a huge gamble, and it seems to have paid off completely.
When they were connected to Gareth Bale last summer in a shock transfer rumor, that quickly became transfer reality, there were a lot of questions: How could they afford it? How long would the contract be? And did he have anything left in the tank?
On the first and second questions, while many around MLS grumbled, Bale took a similar contract to Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s with the LA Galaxy a few years earlier, with an absurdly low initial period on a Targeted Allocation Money deal, which would convert to a Designated Player deal later if the player decided to stay. In Bale’s case, the clock was one year, if he wanted to stay with LAFC longer, he would get a big raise and require that DP slot.
Now, the third question was most pertinent: Would Bale have anything left in the tank? The answer seemed to be...not really?
That’s not quite fair. Bale scored three goals in less than 400 minutes, including a highlight reel goal against Real Salt Lake that made the defender trying to stop him look like a ragdoll, and of course, the goal that took the MLS Cup final to a penalty shootout, with an inch-perfect header in the 128th minute to make the game 3-3 when LAFC were down to 10 men.
So Bale did have his moments, but he also did not play at all in LAFC’s previous two playoff games before MLS Cup, with LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo quizzically stating Bale was “not injured, but not available” for the first playoff game at all. What does that even mean?
It was clear that Bale’s primary goal was to be ready to play for Wales in the World Cup, and LAFC appeared to agree to that. Bale did play in all three of Wales’ World Cup games, and he got his wish. And LAFC got a Supporters’ Shield-MLS Cup double with one of the biggest names in the world playing a role along the way.
However, the news of Bale’s retirement on Monday is likely a relief of sorts to LAFC. No, they can’t sell a bunch of 2023 jerseys with Bale’s name on them anymore and they won’t get the residual interest from Europe with Bale out of the picture, but in terms of looking forward, moving on seems to be in LAFC’s best interest.
First and foremost, this definitively opens up a DP slot that LAFC can use immediately if they like. It’s unclear if Bale was planning to report for LAFC training camp and his retirement announcement took them by surprise, but if they knew it was coming, it could come in a matter of weeks. More likely, however, they will hold it for the summer to assess their options for the second half of the year, much like they successfully managed in 2022.
And while I think the team and coaches would have genuinely been fine with Bale being back for the 2023 season, they no longer have to do a song and dance about his fitness. Prior to joining LAFC, Bale had barely played for more than a season. While it seemed like perhaps he would be fresher than ever, the opposite appeared to be the case, and Cherundolo’s initial remarks that he would bring Bale along slowly because he was in “his preseason” ultimately ended up being Bale’s level. He never left that “preseason” form and it appeared that Bale would never be 90-minute fit for his club. He was for his country, but not for his club. Whether that’s because he did not want to jeopardize his health for the World Cup, or he was dragging his body through international duty is unclear, but it would have been an absolute quagmire to pay Bale probably the most on the team and then only be able to bring him off the bench for 20 minutes three out of every six games.
So in the end, this retirement seems mutually beneficial for all. Bale doesn’t have to worry about his fitness anymore and if his body is truly broken down, he may have struggled to ever get it back to 90-minute fitness, even in MLS. LAFC don’t have to worry about a potential albatross of a contract in exchange for a couple trophies. And yet, they still got the trophies, Bale got the trophies with them and the epic memory with LAFC and the World Cup. Win-win. The Gareth Bale era with LAFC may have ultimately been short, but it ended up working out great on both sides, and so LAFC’s enormous gamble ended up paying off.
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